Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two years ago

It's kind of weird to think that at this time two years ago I was working at Scotiabank while diligently checking the Peel Board of Education's job posting site every day for a teaching position. Then some days (a week or less) later, I got the long-desired English teaching position at the Woodlands which--unbeknownst to me at the time, of course--started me on the path to where I am now: teaching English in Japan.

How did I go from my dream job (teaching English at the high school I attended) to teaching English in Northern Japan? Well, it turned out that I was absolutely horrible at classroom management. I had two grade nine academic English classes which went OK (although, due to my inexperience I still felt I did a mediocre job with them at best) and a grade ten applied English class which was an absolute disaster.

The Ontario public high school system streams students from early on into academic tracks based on their perceived future career paths: university, college, or workplace. (A practice I have serious issues with, but I won't get into that here.) Thus, the applied level is for those who are perceived to be going to college or the workforce, i.e. NOT university. Basically, it is distinguished as NOT being the academic track.

Anyway, my particular class had a lot of students with various learning or behavioural difficulties and since I only started teaching them after a week into the semester (before that, they had a supply teacher), I wasn't able to set the classroom tone properly from the beginning. Although I tried, I was never able to get the class on track after that poor start. (And to be honest, even in my practice teaching it was clear that classroom management was going to be an issue for me.)

I realized too that I had led an extremely sheltered, one-track life. Throughout my entire school career I was a serious, academic student who behaved well and got good marks. Although I did a short stint working at a chain family restaurant (Swiss Chalet), I'd never had the common teen experience of working retail or fast food. As a result, I felt like I had very little by way of life experience to offer students who weren't model, academic students.

So, two weeks into the job, I started seriously considering quitting teaching. People suggested that I might want to change to a lower age group (junior high or elementary) or try teaching in a private school instead of public, but I never really considered those options. Maybe I was (and am) too idealistic, but I have always believed that good public education is a cornerstone for an equitable society. So it would have gone against my personal principles to teach at a private school. (I know that private schools have their role and place, but I'd long decided that the private system wasn't my place.) Also, I didn't want to be a teacher if I could only teach the model, academic students. I thought (and still think) I couldn't rightly call myself a teacher if I couldn't effectively reach the so-called "lower-level" learners.

But even though I wanted to quit my teaching job, I wasn't quite ready to give up on teaching altogether. By October, though, I was nearly positive that I couldn't continue teaching in the Peel high school system, at least not as I was. Then I remembered my university thoughts of teaching in Japan with the JET Programme. I thought that if I could go to another country and teach English as a second language, not only would I gain life experience and become a more well-rounded person, but I would also have a good explanation for the break in my Ontario career if I decided to go back to teaching when I came back.

Ironically, I applied for JET in the hopes that it would save my (Ontario) teaching career. I say "ironically" because, if anything, teaching in Japan has convinced me that I can't go back to teaching in Canada. If classroom management was my weakness in Canada, well, Japan was probably the place where I would get the least experience to improve it. I know that not all schools in Japan are this way, but it just so happened that pretty much all of the schools and classes I've visited in Towada have extremely well-behaved students who barely need any managing on my part. (This is, of course, due to the good classroom management of all their native teachers from elementary school and onwards.) I suspect that if I went back into a Canadian classroom now, I'd probably find that my management/disciplining skills have diminished!

Then too, even though I work long hours relative to many other elementary/junior high ALTs, my workload is nothing compared to a native teacher's, or even that of a teacher in Canada. I doubt that I could go back to the "no life outside of teaching" lifestyle I had as a Peel high school teacher after two (and possibly more) years of being an assistant language teacher.

So where does that leave me?

Loving the job that I have now, but worried about the future direction of my life. As great as the work is, the ALT position can (and indeed, should) only be short-term at best. Even if I could continue at my position after the five year maximum term granted to JETs, out of fairness to the students, I don't think I would. After all, it's a job meant for the young and enthusiastic, and I think that would be difficult to push after five years.

But even though JET has pretty much ruined me for teaching in Canada, it has confirmed my love for the education field. If at all possible, I want to find work related to education when I go back to Canada. Of course, the problem will be finding a job that will be related closely enough to teaching to satisfy me but that won't require a lot of (Canadian) teaching experience.